“Failure…is a Dantesque, circular affair. Just as the grain of wheat has to pass through the millstones if it is to turn into something more refined, so we have to go through several circles of failure, each one of which will shake us properly and leave us badly wounded, but also make us a little sharper. All that pressing and grinding will not be in vain.”
The Timberwolves made the playoffs.
It was not easy and it was often quite stressful. They merely earned the eighth and final seed, pitting them against the twice-reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the top-seeded Denver Nuggets. They will be heavy underdogs. But after a season of twists and turns and ups and downs, they prevailed in the second of two play-in chances, and earned the right to postseason play.
That intro passage above comes from ‘In Praise of Failure,’ a recently published book by Costica Bradatan. Broken into four general types of failure (physical/health; political; social; death/existential) Bradatan’s book tells the stories of famous people (of his chosen subjects, Gandhi is the best known) who embraced failure and even suffering in ways that ultimately benefited their cause, or at least their perspective. I’m not sure why I decided to read it, other than that the NYT review made it seem unique and interesting. As so much of human life becomes practically or technologically “easier,” I find it worth visiting and revisiting why that ease fails to deliver any collective sense of elevated well-being. Bradatan’s book itself explores exceptionally radical examples of pain and suffering to highlight the importance and benefits of humility. If a person has suffered, or a people have suffered, that can be and often is a first step toward a special sort of enlightenment. His subjects were unique in how they sought out or even yearned for suffering, which is certainly not the common experience of the less fortunate. Anyway, it’s a pretty interesting book.
In a slightly less serious context, the themes of ‘In Praise of Failure’ translate nicely to the experience of Minnesota Timberwolves fandom. This is a fanbase that knows failure and suffering like the back of its hand. Younger fans probably think most about Jimmy Butler demanding a trade after the bright phase of Wiggins-LaVine-Towns Promise was dented and ultimately demolished. They think about trading away Andrew Wiggins and a first round pick for D’Angelo Russell, only to see D’Lo struggle here, Wiggins become an All-Star and champion there, and the barely-protected first become a high and valuable one. They think about Karl-Anthony Towns going from clear-cut franchise savior and most coveted young player in basketball, to someone frequently derided by critics national and local (*raises hand*) and whose future as a Timberwolf is in greater doubt than ever. And of course, most recently, they think about new POBO Tim Connelly’s decision to trade effectively five first round draft picks (four actual picks in the future + just-drafted Walker Kessler) and some playable rotation players for Rudy Gobert. They can’t stop thinking about the Gobert Trade because Bill Simmons Will. Not. Let. Them.
As someone old enough to remember the entire franchise history, it’s crazy to think that there are high-school-age Wolves fans out there already bearing enough scar tissue to basically “get it.” It’s so much more than 2018 to 2023, however, and to get into all of the bad lottery luck, bad lottery-pick decisions, bad coaches, bad players, illegal contracts, knuckle push-ups, ACL’s, and David Kahn would be too many words for a blog post. Maybe it’s a book I’ll write someday.
Nevertheless, the Wolves beat the Thunder on Friday night at Target Center, they’re in the playoffs, and that is an accomplishment that we here do not take for granted. They won Game 84 decisively, affording fans most of the 4th Quarter to soak it in, decompress, and channel their humbled perspective into a joy that perhaps no other team’s supporters could muster from 42 wins and an 8 seed.
As the great Tom Thibodeau used to say, “The playoffs are different.” With that qualitative divider placed between what’s happened and what’s about to come, here are a handful of observations about this past regular season performance.
Head coaching performance in NBA basketball is often difficult to measure. The dynamics of the league and the game are such that star-level talent will almost always trump any subtle strategic advantages that one set of players receives from their coach that the opponent does not. Behind the scenes practice and preparation is largely invisible. The league’s playing rules are restrictive, with the very-wide lane limiting where both offensive and defensive players are allowed to stand. Ultimately, and maybe even “unfortunately,” it becomes a “copycat league,” with most teams running similar sets and plays, and very similar responses to those plays on defense. Wolves fans who listen to the great Dane Moore Podcast have become acquainted with defensive terms “high wall,” and “drop” to describe how pick and rolls are countered. That there is an “either/or” approach to defensive strategy — rather than “endless possibilities” — is kind of what I mean. I’m digressing here.
When Chris Finch replaced Ryan Saunders in the middle of the 2020-21 season, the impact was positive and it was immediate. That moment of coaching change is one where measurements are most easily made. We saw this incredibly starkly when Rick Adelman replaced Kurt Rambis, too. Whether it is tactical, motivational, or just sharper attention to detail and greater expectations, some coaches are better than others, even in the NBA where coaching doesn’t always seem to matter very much. Britt Robson is the foremost authority on Timberwolves History, and he often repeats that Finch’s coaching performance last season was the finest the team’s ever had. I can’t disagree with the take, even if there are other contenders. (Flip’s in 2004; Musselman’s two seasons at franchise inception; Adelman’s wholesale culture change in 2011.)
With all of that said, Finch took a step backward this year. This is for two basic reasons: (1) the very high number of inexcusable losses that spoiled the team’s chances at a high playoff seed; and (2) the offense.
The first one is simple. The Detroit Pistons were the worst team in the league this year, winning only 17 times. Two of those came against the Wolves. The Spurs were the next worst, and they also beat the Wolves twice. The Rockets for a long stretch were the joke of the league. When they beat the Wolves on January 23rd, it snapped their 13-game losing streak. The Hornets were the second-worst team in the East, but managed to sweep their two matchups with the Wolves. The Magic and Wizards were comfortably outside the playoff picture in the East. Orlando took 1 of 2 from the Wolves while Washington swept em. And of course, most recently, the Wolves lost Game 79 to a Portland Trail Blazers team that was outright tanking, in one of the biggest betting-line upsets in modern history. Nobody can reasonably say the Wolves should’ve won all 11 of those games — even great teams lay the occasional egg — but that is an outsized number of flops. Had they dropped merely 8 of them, the Wolves would’ve tied the Suns for the 4th best record in the West. Had they done better and only lost 2 of those 11, they’d have tied Memphis for the 2-seed.
Those inexcusable, baffling performances against the bottom feeders — many of whom were outright tanking for Victor Wembanyama hopes — is an unfortunate headline to the 2022-23 Timberwolves season. Fair or not, that is the sort of thing that falls on the coach as basic accountability.
The second one is a little stranger and some may take issue with it, or at least my description of it. The offense. The ’22-23 Wolves scored 113.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranked them 23rd among all 30 teams. That’s not very good, and certainly not good enough to think about competing for a championship, which was the preseason hope with this juiced-up roster. For reference, the three teams just ahead of them in O-rankings were the Wizards, Pacers, and Pelicans, none of which made the playoffs.
The natural defense against blaming Finch for offensive struggles would be to point out KAT’s extended absence. Nursing his calf injury, Towns missed 53 games. He’s the team’s best offensive player, so maybe the scoring struggles were as simple as missing Towns?
Not really. In KAT’s 957 minutes on the floor this year, the Wolves scored worse than when he was off of it. His 111.2 offensive rating would stack up as the 26th ranked amongst the 30 teams. Interestingly, the Wolves defense was quite a bit better during Towns minutes, reversing a trend and contradicting his reputation to some extent. The Towns absence does not explain the offensive struggles.
To my eye, what drove this was a severe lack of structure that for certain lineups was desperately needed. Before the D’Angelo Russell/Mike Conley trade, the lack of structure invited far too many careless turnovers. Backcourt mistakes leading to opponent dunks and layups was far too much of a Timberwolves staple for the first half of this season.
That trade was a winner, however, and Conley has single-handedly brought a maturity to the Wolves’ offense that was absent before his arrival. But there is still another major issue with this team’s offensive approach, and it rears its head during the minutes that Towns and Gobert share the floor together. As a tandem they represent the defining quality to Tim Connelly’s all-in move to push this team to title contention. As a tandem on the floor in Season 1, they scored just 106.2 points per 100 possessions. The Hornets, at 108.4, had the worst offense in the league. In his preseason interview with Robson for MinnPost, Chris Finch sounded confident about all things offense, saying “I think offensively we have a pretty good idea of how it is going to fit together; we just have to go through the mechanics of it.” Regarding KAT’s adjustment ahead, he noted that with Rudy as a new lob threat on the interior, “KAT is going to be the one that has to move and play at different spots on the floor.” Bigger picture, regarding the Twin Towers concept, Finch said boldly, “Our commitment to the Rudy trade is we are not going to allow teams to play our players off the floor. We have to be smart enough to figure it out. A lot of that is, are you able to punish your opponent at the other end of the floor (when the Wolves are on offense)? And we think we can.”
The inaugural season of Twin Towers was, on the offensive side of the floor, a spectacular failure. By Finch’s own stated standard, they were not smart enough to figure it out.
In a season of unusual Western Conference parity, the Timberwolves roster likewise had a high number of (at times, at least) integral parts, without a clear-cut or “by far” MVP. The net rating range amongst regular rotation players spans from Naz Reid’s (-4.2) at the bottom, to Kyle Anderson’s (+2.3) at the top. That is pretty narrow, lacking any clear outliers in either direction. Regular Wolves-game viewers are not surprised by Slow Mo leading the way in this department, as for loooong stretches of the season he seemed to be as vital to team success as anyone on the team; including All-Star Anthony Edwards and including max-contract vets Towns and Gobert.
Anderson’s relative importance was a byproduct of the “no structure” that hindered things with D’Lo and Ant turning the ball over, and with Towns and Gobert unable to figure out a workable chemistry. His nickname speaks for itself — Anderson operates incredibly slowly — but without fail he gets to where he wants to get with the basketball. He’s got a point guard’s handle and court awareness. At 6’9″ with a deft touch, he’s able to finish all sorts of funky shots around the basket. While he lacks the explosive burst to score against a keyed-in interior defender (really the only thing keeping him from being an All-Star) he’s got an innate sense of whether to flick the floater up high to Rudy, kick it out to a shooter for three, or – worst case – attempt the floater and get back on defense.
When Anderson shared the floor with Gobert, over a large sampling of 1,088 minutes, the Wolves tended to dominate. They scored better (115.3) and they defended ridiculously well, allowing just 108.2 points per 100. (Cleveland had the best D-rating this year at 109.9.) Anderson’s long armed ball thefts were about as impressive as his slow-mo, Euro-stepping playmaking was on the other end. Paired with KAT, Anderson lineups were likewise competitive, albeit more offensive oriented. (117.6 offense, 114.1 defense, +3.5 net, in 346 minutes.)
This guy is so good and was so integral to team success that they have to at least partially rethink how their front line looks, going forward. Connelly and Finch need to embrace this as a positive blessing, and try to forget about any awkwardness that might arise from moving partially or entirely off of the Twin Towers concept.
Towns, Gobert, and Towns & Gobert
I don’t have the time I used to have for writing posts like this one, which inevitably shifts the “takes” away from the measured world of complete sentences and paragraphs, and toward the volatile landscape that is Twitter. Unable to attend many games and sit in press row like I used to for damn-near every single home game, it’s fun to maintain the online connection to Wolves fans and pundits while continuing to develop and share whatever thoughts I have about the team.
This has led to a rash of knee-jerk reactions over the past year when I personally had especially high hopes and expectations for the team that Connelly assembled, and the performance out of the gates was alarmingly bad. (A full chronological recap of the 2022-23 Timberwolves would flesh out how dire things seemed in those early days before the Towns injury, when they often trailed average or worse opponents by 20+ in the first half.) Tweeting is fun, but sometimes reckless, and I know I’ve fired off several iterations of “They need to either trade Towns or fire Finch.”
That sentiment might have some merit to it, but there are reasons for patience that a few deep breaths and WordPress can process better than overheated Twitter fingers during a fourth quarter meltdown.
A few basic reasons to keep the faith in Twin Towers that Finch-Connelly had last November:
First, the defense seems to be good and possibly great. Sometimes they struggle to get back in transition (especially after stagnant or sloppy offensive sets) but the stats are consistently favorable and the eye test usually lines up to say that Towns and Gobert, together, can anchor a bigtime NBA defense.
Second, despite his outward confidence before the season, Finch had and has had some excuses for not getting things figured out with KAT and Rudy as a cohesive pairing. Towns missed a large chunk of training camp with an illness. Once training camp ends, practices come in short supply. Then of course he had the calf injury, knocking him out of everything for the middle two thirds of the season. It isn’t realistic to spark sudden chemistry that wasn’t there in the first place, while trying desperately to win as many games as possible to sneak into the playoffs. Basically, it might still be possible to figure out how to score efficiently with Twin Towers, but they will need time and some different ideas.
Third, as mentioned above, Kyle Anderson has been an absolute revelation and they can stagger KAT and Rudy for most of a game while Kyle plays the four spot. Even if simultaneous Twin Towers chemistry never totally materializes, the Wolves could have an elite overall frontcourt situation if managed with heavy staggering and Slow Mo 6th Man minutes.
Fourth and finally, as we saw this year with the Towns injury, each tower is an insurance policy against the other’s health. This team can win with only Rudy and — as it showed in the pivotal 2nd Half vs NOLA in Game 82 — it can win with only KAT. In a league that’s trended heavily toward load management and paid-time-off resting of key players, it would be luxurious to be able to do planned rest for both Rudy and KAT in some regular season games, and still have every expectation of getting the W.
At the end of the day, with a cooler head, I think the Wolves should be open to trading either center if an enticing opportunity presents itself. Connelly might do well to even explore it a little bit, proactively. But trading one just for the sake of abandoning Twin Towers might be a mistake. The defensive numbers paired with some plausible excuses for the to-date offensive struggles are cause for some level of patience with the project.
(Just don’t ask for my take if the Wolves are down double digits in the 2nd Half of Game 1.)
Ant, Jaden, and The Chris Finch Reality
Recent events have buried the lede of the Timberwolves 2022-23 Story. These include Karl’s dramatic return from injury, the Gobert-Anderson sideline scuffle, Jaden’s unfortunate loss of temper and resulting hand fracture, and Ant’s decreased production while adjusting to a shoulder injury.
The big-picture takeaway from the 2022-23 Timberwolves season was that the youthful half of their roster core made a large step forward toward eventual stardom. In the case of Anthony Edwards, that meant an actual All-Star Game appearance. In the case of Jaden McDaniels, it meant incremental-but-important progress as an offensive player, and increasing national recognition as one of the elite defenders in the entire NBA.
With Towns on the shelf for much of the season, Ant stepped up to fill the scoring void. He had career highs in points per game (24.6), rebounds per game (5.8), assists per game (4.4), steals per game (1.6), blocks per game (0.7), field goal percentage (45.9), and three-point percentage (36.9). His defense improved, and national pundits have taken notice that Edwards on the ball is one of the tougher stoppers around. Ant still has areas to improve — turnovers and careless decision-making atop the list — but his progress continues to be steady, and he is one of the very brightest young stars in the world. He’s still only 21 years old, the age of most college juniors.
Jaden McDaniels likewise posted several career highs: 12.1 points; 51.7 FG%; 39.8 3P%; 1.9 assists. Offensively, McDaniels grew comfortable in late shot-clock situations, attacking off the dribble and converting short fadeaways and other improvisational shots around the basket. Offense will never be his primary calling card, but McDaniels is making his coach look wise and prescient for heaping so much praise on him when he first took over the job as Wolves coach. Defensively, Jaden still fouls too much — the direct impetus for his wall punch, the other day, in fact — and that will need to be gradually figured out with more experience and more physical strength to avoid pushing too much with his arms when he’s out of perfect position. But his defense is truly exceptional and it is always faced up to the league’s best players. He is a foundational piece whose position, playing style, and personality seem just perfectly meshed to sidekick Anthony Edwards for the long haul.
This once again brings up Chris Finch. As much as those bad losses were a legitimate source of frustration and as much as the offense will need to have more direction if Twin Towers is to ever work, the Wolves cannot change coaches right now; not with the steady progress of the two most important young players on the team, and not with Edwards specifically going out of his way at any opportunity to credit Finch for anything that might have gone well.
The Rudy Gobert Trade has caused a lot of NBA pundit brains to break, with an overwhelming compulsion to repeat over and over again how it is going to be one of the worst in league history. For that to be true, though, it would have to leave the Timberwolves in a bad spot. For the Wolves to end up in a bad spot, it is almost certainly necessary that things did not work out with Anthony Edwards and Jaden McDaniels. As long as they keep progressing into their mid-20s at anything close to the pace they’ve been progressing under Chris Finch, the Wolves are going to be just fine. Ant just made the All-Star Team at 21, and Jaden will at least be strongly considered for All-Defense at 22. The Wolves will sign each player to 4 or 5 year extensions that don’t take effect until after next season. This is essentially a conceptual mulligan on where things seemed to stand with Wiggins/LaVine/Towns in their earliest years, when optimism ran high.
Despite the unique dynamics that the trade created, with reasonable expectations to win now, Finch’s fate should always be tied more directly to Ant and Jaden, and their ascendance into a championship foundation. Twin Towers is a roster and x’s and o’s feature of the present and perhaps the foreseeable future, but it is not the top priority. Where it matters most, Finch has seemed to do his job and do it well.